Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

London — Chinese stocks fell almost 4% and alarm bells rang across global markets on Tuesday, as the trade dispute between the US and China escalated further.

The yuan also hit a five-month low overnight after US President Donald Trump’s threat to impose a 10% tariff on another $200bn of Chinese goods drew warnings from Beijing about $50bn of retaliatory penalties on US goods.

Asian stocks wilted to a four-month low and Australia’s dollar and SA’s rand were among a diverse group of currencies caught in the crossfire. Europe’s main equity benchmarks sank 1% to 1.5% in early trading and Wall Street futures were pointing to similar falls there later, while safe-haven government bonds and the yen rallied as investors sought protection.

"You only have to look at how far the main Shanghai index has fallen to see that people would probably want some safe-haven assets at this point," said DZ Bank analyst Andy Cossor.

China had warned it will take "qualitative" and "quantitative" measures if the US government publishes an additional list of tariffs on its products.

The trade frictions have unnerved financial markets, with investors and businesses increasingly worried that a full-blown trade battle could derail global growth.

"Trump appears to be employing a similar tactic he used with North Korea, by blustering first in order to gain an advantage in negotiations," said Kota Hirayama, senior emerging markets economist at SMBC Nikko Securities in Tokyo. "The problem is, such a tactic is unlikely to work with China."

Great fall of China

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan fell 1.9% to its lowest since early December. The losses had intensified through the day as the rout deepened in China.

The Shanghai Composite Index slumped nearly 5% at one point to its lowest level since mid-2016, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shed as much 3% before ending 2.8% down.

China’s economy is already clouded by a sharp slowdown in fixed-asset investment growth due to the government’s deleveraging drive, a problematic property sector, a mounting debt burden and rising credit defaults. Economists at Nomura wrote, "The rising risk of a disruptive trade conflict makes a bad situation tentatively worse." Japan’s Nikkei lost 1.8%, South Korea’s Kospi retreated 1.3% while Australian stocks bucked the trend and added 0.1%, helped by a depreciating currency and an overnight bounce in commodity prices.

The dollar fell 0.75% to ¥109.715 following Trump’s tariff comments. The yen is often sought in times of market turmoil and political tensions. It made ground on the euro in early European trading, however, to stand 0.3% higher at $1.1556.

China’s yuan skidded to a five-month low. The Australian dollar, often seen as a proxy for China-related trades, brushed a one-year low of $0.7381.

Eyes on Opec

With Russia and Saudi Arabia pushing for higher output, crude oil markets remained volatile ahead of Friday’s oil cartel Opec meeting.

Brent crude futures fell 0.8% to $74.76 a barrel after rallying 2.5% overnight, while US light crude futures retreated 0.9% to $65.27.

Lower-risk assets gained on the latest round of trade threats. Spot gold was up 0.35% at $1,282.26 an ounce albeit after its sharpest drop in one-and-a-half years late last week.

The 10-year US treasury note yield touched 2.871%, its lowest since June 1. Most European bond yields dropped too, with Germany’s 10-year government bund, the benchmark for the region, at a two-week low of 0.363%. Italian government bonds, which are considered less safe and have suffered from recent domestic political ructions, sold off, with their 10-year yields up three basis points at 2.59%.

But the stress was highest in emerging markets, where the average yield on domestic currency debt was the highest since March 2017 and fast approaching 7%. "Escalation [of trade tensions] is a sort of an impossible thing to forecast, but if it stops at this level you have probably created some nice risk premiums in Asia and emerging markets," said Hans Peterson, global head of asset allocation at SEB Investment Management. "So if it doesn’t get worse, it is probably a buying opportunity."